WASHINGTON — A senior Trump administration official has embellished her résumé with misleading claims about her professional background — even creating a fake Time magazine cover with her face on it — raising questions about her qualifications to hold a top position at the State Department.
An NBC News investigation found that Mina Chang, the deputy assistant secretary in the State Department's Bureau of Conflict and Stability Operations, has inflated her educational achievements and exaggerated the scope of her nonprofit's work.
Whatever her qualifications, Chang had a key connection in the Trump administration. Brian Bulatao, a top figure in the State Department and longtime friend of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, attended a fundraiser for her nonprofit in Dallas and once donated $5,500 to her charity, according to a former colleague of Chang's.
She was being considered for an even bigger government job, one with a budget of more than $1 billion, until Congress started asking questions about her résumé.
The gap between Chang's actual qualifications and her claims appears to be the latest example of lax vetting by the Trump administration, which has become known for its many job vacancies and appointments made without thorough screening.
In her State Department post, Chang, 35, from Dallas, helps oversee efforts to prevent conflicts from erupting in politically unstable countries. She earns a six-figure salary in a bureau with a $6 million budget. A deputy assistant secretary usually has a top secret security clearance. It's not clear if Chang has such a clearance.
For Chang's current job, her most relevant experience would appear to be her time as CEO of a nonprofit called Linking the World. Chang has touted her small nonprofit online and in speeches as operating in dozens of countries, building schools and "impacting" thousands of people. But tax filings for her organization offer no concrete information about overseas projects and show a budget of less than $300,000 with a handful of staff.
Ian Dailey, former chief of staff of Linking the World, defended how the organization has presented itself publicly. Daily said it is a small nongovernmental organization (NGO) that does not run large-scale programs, and instead tests new technologies — including drones — and new approaches to humanitarian relief.
"We are not implementers of programs. We pilot new technologies, testing their practicalities, and seek to identify the 'unintended consequences' that are rife in our industry," Dailey told NBC News.
In a 2017 video posted on her nonprofit's website, Chang can be heard describing her work while a Time magazine cover with her face on it scrolls past.
"Here you are on Time magazine, congratulations! Tell me about this cover and how it came to be?" asks the interviewer, who hosts a YouTube show.
"Well, we started using drone technology in disaster response and so that was when the whole talk of how is technology being used to save lives in disaster response scenarios, I suppose I brought some attention to that," Chang said.
The interviewer says Chang brought the Time cover to the interview as an example of her work.
Time magazine spokesperson Kristin Matzen said the cover is "not authentic."
After publication of this article, Linking the World removed the "Donate" button and the video with the TIME cover from its website.
Chang's biography says she was part of a panel on drones in humanitarian relief efforts convened by the U.N. But there's no record backing up her claim and a source with knowledge of the matter said she was not part of the "panel," which was a single public roundtable.
Chang says in her official biography that she is as an "alumna" of Harvard Business School. According to the university, Chang attended a seven-week course in 2016, and does not hold a degree from the institution.
Harvard Business School spokesperson Mark Cautela said the school grants "alumni status" to anyone who attends certain executive education programs, even without having earned a degree there.
Her biography on the State Department website says she is a "graduate" of a program at the Army War College. But the program she attended was a four-day seminar on national security, according to the college.
Let our news meet your inbox. The news and stories that matters, delivered weekday mornings.
She says she "addressed" both the Democratic and Republican national conventions in 2016, but videos and documents show she instead spoke at separate events held in Philadelphia and Cleveland during the same time periods.
Chang, the State Department and the White House did not respond to requests for comment.
Chang had no apparent ties to President Donald Trump's political campaign, but Brian Bulatao, a former West Point classmate and business partner of Secretary of State Pompeo, was invited to fundraising events for her charity, according to Ian Dailey, the former chief of staff of her nonprofit. One year Bulatao bid on an auction item that resulted in a $5,500 donation to the group, Dailey said. But he added that Bulatao had no role in the organization.
"Brian was one of approximately 400 to 500 individuals regularly invited to our fundraising events. At one of those events he bid on an auction item, which accounts for the donation in its totality," Dailey told NBC News.
Chang cultivated an active social media profile, presenting herself as a globe-trotting humanitarian, and appeared at well-heeled charity dinners in Dallas, including a "Women That Soar" dinner and a Dallas Opera event.
Her Instagram account, with 42,000 followers, includes selfies with celebrities and Washington luminaries like former President Bill Clinton, retired Gen. David Petraeus, former Defense Secretary Bob Gates, Karl Rove, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Buzz Aldrin.
She also established contacts with the U.S. military. A government contractor, AlliedBarton Security Services, sponsored a fundraising dinner in 2016 for her nonprofit in Dallas, and the keynote speaker was John Melkon, director of civil-military operations at West Point.
Chang was originally being considered for an even more senior government post in which she would have overseen the U.S. Agency for International Development's work in Asia. She would have been responsible for a budget of more than $1 billion. The administration announced an intent to nominate her in late 2018. She was appointed to the State Department post in the interim.
Chang's nomination to the USAID job, which would have required Senate confirmation, was withdrawn on Sept. 9 without public explanation, after the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations asked her for more documents and details about her nonprofit organization and her work experience.
Chang's appointment is the latest administration hire to come under scrutiny since President Donald Trump entered office. Government watchdogs, former officials and members of Congress have accused the White House of failing to thoroughly vet appointees and nominees for senior-level offices.
A 24-year-old former Trump campaign volunteer, Taylor Weyeneth, rose to a senior job in the White House drug policy office without any relevant professional experience. He was fired last year after a Washington Post report brought public attention to his meteoric rise.
In August, Trump withdrew a nominee for director of national intelligence, Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, less than a week after lawmakers raised questions about his qualifications and the accuracy of his résumé.
After Ratcliffe's nomination flamed out, Trump defended his administration's screening of job candidates, saying the news media helped the White House filter nominees.
"If you take a look at it, the vetting process for the White House is very good," the president told reporters. "But you're part of the vetting process, you know? I give out a name to the press, and they vet for me. We save a lot of money that way."
In past administrations, White House staff carefully checked a potential appointee's education and work bona fides, as well as any court cases or criminal records that could be damaging, said Pfiffner of George Mason.
"The White House goes into very great detail — 'Have you ever been divorced, have you ever been arrested?'" Pfiffner said. "Most administrations are very thorough about that."
As to Chang's job history, he said, "I would expect that they would check all of the claims made in the bio, most of which would be relatively easy to check."
A potential political appointee to a State Department post is vetted by the department, including an elaborate questionnaire, before the White House ever screens the candidate. The State Department vetting is supposed to examine tax returns, any unexplained wealth, social media accounts, the status of domestic staff, any inappropriate or worrisome track record in the workplace and any potential questions about integrity, said Linda Thomas-Greenfield, former director general of the foreign service and director of personnel at the State Department.
Career officials at the State Department and across the federal government take vetting seriously "because they care about maintaining a high standard for the civil service and the foreign service," Thomas-Greenfield said. "They want to see talented people with integrity appointed to senior positions."
In the Trump administration, rapid turnover and uneven vetting instead creates opportunities for people who might not otherwise be considered, said Pfiffner. "With the way Trump has fired high-level people by tweet, it's not an encouraging thing to work for the government. But if you are not very qualified then it's a great chance to get in there."
Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the Trump administration has consistently failed to thoroughly screen candidates for senior posts.
The committee staff "has been forced to dedicate a significant amount of time and resources on vetting this administration's nominees because of the White House's negligence or incompetence," Menendez said. "These jobs aren't a joke — there are billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars and the lives of U.S. citizens on the line here."
Ten years ago, Chang was pursuing a career as a recording artist before she turned to humanitarian work. Video from that time, posted on her YouTube page, promotes her holiday album.
By 2014, she had set up Linking the World under the umbrella of a local foundation in Dallas, according to the foundation. Her Instagram account shows international food donations featuring Linking the World logos. But it's unclear precisely what contributions her organization made to relief efforts.
In a 2014 video she described her charity to a room full of Texas college students. "Linking the World provides hunger relief, medical aid," she said. "We have operated schools, we have built schools in places like Afghanistan, Myanmar, Haiti, Kenya."
In 2015, her charity received tax exempt status from the IRS, according to public records.
A review of her nonprofit's IRS returns from 2014 and 2015 shows no information about operating or building schools, and offers no details about staff devoted to managing aid projects on the ground in those countries.
In public remarks in 2015 she said her group worked in 40 countries: "We have in-house K9 search and rescue teams, we have testified in front of hearing committees on Capitol Hill, we've done things like lectured at West Point, brief chiefs of staff at the Pentagon."
NBC News was unable to find any record of her or her organization ever testifying before Congress.
Dailey, Chang’s former colleague at the nonprofit, said the group did operate in 40 countries over two decades, including when the organization was registered in South Korea.
In its 2015 tax filing, Linking the World reported that it had no staff overseas and no expenditures abroad of more than $10,000, which one expert said was puzzling given the group's descriptions of its international work.
"How are they accomplishing so much without spending at least $10,000 in those countries? That does not make sense to me," said Jane Searing, an expert on nonprofit tax forms and an accountant at the accounting firm Clark Nuber in Washington state. "They could be partnering with another organization, but then they should say that and not claim those accomplishments as their own."
Tax filings for her nonprofit show an organization with a budget of less than $300,000, and few staff, despite her statements about the vast scope of her group's work. For 2015, the organization listed spending just $44,645 on salaries but more than $60,000 on "advertising and promotion" and $50,298 on travel.
The IRS revoked the organization's tax exempt status in May this year for failing to file its annual filings for the past three years, according to the agency's website.
"To not file with the IRS for three years is really being a scofflaw," Eve Borenstein, a lawyer with Harmon Curran law firm and a prominent expert on nonprofit tax law, told NBC News. "They should know how to properly report their program accomplishments and also address other required asks."
Despite losing its charitable status, the organization continued to solicit donations on its website.
Chang received no compensation from the nonprofit, according to the group's tax filings.
She has often cited her organization's work with drones in humanitarian relief efforts but four experts in that field said they had not heard of her organization. The Humanitarian UAV Network UAViators does not mention Chang or Linking the World on a list of advisers.
Dan De Luce
Dan De Luce is a reporter for the NBC News Investigative Unit.
Laura Strickler is an investigative producer in the NBC News Investigative Unit based in Washington.
Ari Sen is an intern with the NBC News Washington bureau.